You’ve heard the name. You’ve seen the social media posts. You’ve read the magazine headlines in the grocery check-out aisle.
The keto weight-loss diet — the new fad praised by celebrities in Hollywood or your next-door neighbor with claims of “fat-melting, weight-loss magic!” So, what is the keto diet? Does it really work for weight-loss? And, most importantly, is it safe?
What is “KETO”?
Believe it or not, the keto diet is more than 100 years old. It was originally used to treat diabetes before insulin was discovered. It was also used to help manage seizures in children suffering from epilepsy. The diet follows a very low-carbohydrate (carb), high-fat eating plan.
“Keto” is short for ketogenic. It is named after the ketone, a type of fuel produced when your body does not have enough sugar (glucose) from eating carbs. Without these carbs, your body transitions to a state called ketosis. In ketosis, instead of burning carbs from energy, your liver will produce ketones from your stored fat to move your muscles, support your organs and help you think. Unfortunately, getting your liver to make ketones is hard. Your body won’t convert fat to ketones until you’ve used up the stored glucose you normally use for energy. Glucose is your body’s favorite form of energy and it’s stored to help you live each day. In order to change the system, you need to drop your carb intake to fewer than 20 to 50 grams a day. To put that into perspective, the recommended daily amount of carbs is %65-%45. For someone eating a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet, that’s somewhere between 225 to 325 grams a day!
What’s the catch?
Since your body is naturally great at using and storing glucose, it typically takes a few days to reach ketosis when you are starting the keto diet. To be honest, it is not a pleasant experience. As glucose leaves your system, you might experience what is commonly referred to as the “keto flu”—a number of symptoms including hunger, fatigue, mood swings, irritability and trouble focusing.
Once the ketogenic state is reached, supporters of the keto diet note that symptoms of the keto flu generally go away. Unfortunately, in order to stay in ketosis, you must keep nearly all carbs out of your meal plan. If you eat more than the suggested amount, your body will immediately switch back to using carbs for energy and you will have to start the process all over. This means no cheat days. No beer during the game. No small slice of cheesecake. No carbs.
Is keto safe?
Honestly, the jury is still out on that one. Current research on ketogenic-type diets is growing, but the studies are very short-term. This means we don’t really know how long-term low-carb, high-fat dieting affects the body.
With this in mind, here are some of the most common concerns about the keto diet:
- The keto diet is very high in saturated fat. The recommended daily intake should be around %7 of your daily caloric intake because of the connection between these types of fat and heart disease. Current research shows that following the keto diet can increase your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol—a link to heart disease.
- When living almost entirely off of fat, our bodies have to do a lot of work. The keto diet is very hard on your liver and could cause harm for those with existing liver conditions.
The keto weight-loss is extremely restrictive. This can pose a few problems:
- Eliminating food groups from your eating plan can result in your body not getting the vitamins and minerals it needs to be its best every day.
- Eating mostly fat and protein can cause digestive distress. Foods high in fat and protein contain little to no fiber. A decrease in fiber can cause constipation and/or intestinal pain.
Before deciding to try or start a diet like the keto diet, it’s important that you need to talk with both your healthcare provider and dietitian to see if it fits with your dietary needs and any health conditions you may have.
The bottom line…
There is still a lot to learn about keto weight-loss. Eliminating anything from your diet is incredibly hard on your body as it means you are not eating a balanced plan and may not be getting all the nutrients you need. The keto diet can also be hard on your mental health and quality of life. “Failing” to reach or sustain ketosis can set us up for feelings of failure, frustration, and disappointment with trying to maintain or lose weight. Extreme restriction is also likely not necessary. In fact, when compared to the keto diet, a low-fat diet high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables produce the same amount of weight-loss for most participants over six months to one year.
Weight-loss is not and never will be a fast process. It is hard. Adopting an active lifestyle with a balance of all foods is recommended to live a happy and long life. A well-known food journalist and author, Michael Pollan, may have said it best: “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
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